Before we start here are summaries for each movie I talk about:
- Divergent: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.
- Insurgent: Tris and Four are now fugitives on the run, hunted by Jeanine, the leader of the power-hungry Erudite elite. Racing against time, they must find out what Tris’s family sacrificed their lives to protect, and why the Erudite leaders will do anything to stop them. Haunted by her past choices but desperate to protect the ones she loves, Tris, with Four at her side, faces one impossible challenge after another as she unlocks the truth about the past and ultimately the future of her world.
- Allegiant: After Edith Prior’s video reveals to the city that there is a whole world outside of the city limits, the city’s social system crumbles. The factions have disintegrated, and Evelyn rules the city as a tyrant with her factionless army. Tris, Tobias, and their friends set out on a mission to discover what is outside the city. Once outside the city, they must figure out who is trustworthy, and who is out to destroy them.
I really enjoyed the first two movies in the Divergent trilogy. I thought they were captivating with their strong female lead, cinematic presence, and believable dystopian world. They didn’t garner the same acclaim that the Hunger Games series did, but they were still successful in their own right, so I was excited when I had some down time this past weekend to finally watch the third movie in the trilogy. Allegiant received terrible reviews, but so did the second movie, Insurgent, which I enjoyed, so I figured people were just being hypercritical.
Oh, was I wrong.
I took the time to compare the budget to the previous films, thinking there must have been a large deficit. There was not. Below are the budgets for each movie according to Box Office Mojo:
- Divergent: $85,000,000
- Insurgent: $110,000,000
- Allegiant: $110,000,000
Not only did Allegiant have the same budget as Insurgent, it had a larger budget than the fan favorite Divergent. Putting the financial argument aside , what was the cause of this downfall? Let’s turn the attention to the Allegiant cinematographer Florian Ballhaus, production designer Alec Hammond, writers Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper, and Bill Collage, and director Andy Nicholson. There must have been issues with each aspect of their work throughout this film to make it fall apart in a way that the other two didn’t. Watching Allegiant was like witnessing a fall from grace. From the poor cinematography to the cheesy set designs, it’s astounding how such a high-budget movie could make such amateur mistakes.
Through Allegiant, the shaky and cheapened cinematography was pretty painful to watch. One of the first shots, where the camera pans across the dilapidated city skyline, didn’t feel clean. It was noticeably shaky, which is not something an establishing shot, especially the first establishing shot, of a high-budget action movie should be. Usually shaky camera moments are done to simulate hand-held camerawork. It gives films and television shows a sense of informality. That’s why you see it a lot in mocumentary shows like Parks and Rec. If you watch Divergent, the first establishing shot, which happens to be the first shot of the film, smoothly pans up from the tall grass, across a deserted shipyard, up the city wall, and through the city streets. It’s crisp and clean. Though I could do without the multiple jump-cuts, I would never call it sloppy.
There were also many unnecessary close-ups that led me to misread the storyline. For example, when the main character Tris is sitting shotgun in an aircraft next to the antagonist after taking his side against her former friends the camera zooms in on the antagonist pressing one button to start up the plane, with Tris coming into focus taking note of this action. I understand that the intention was to make it believable when later in the film Tris easily flies the same aircraft without instruction. But what I took from it was that Tris was planning something– that she was making the antagonist think she was on his side, but really she had something up her sleeve. That would have been completely in keeping with her character. Yet she does nothing of the sort. Instead, she was complacent and apparently just taking note of her surroundings. If you skip to minute 2:46 of this clip, you can see for yourself. It’s confusing, and it makes me think they were trying to cover up a hole in the writing. Cinematographers should not zoom in on something just to drop a nugget that they can use later in the film. Instead, use it to foreshadow something important or to show that your character is conspiring. Although there are a few other issues I had with the cinematography, those are the two that stood out the most and really bothered me the most because they are such amateur mistakes.
- Production Design
With such issues with the cinematography, the production design becomes cheapened, and unfortunately Alec Hammond had some issue recovering from it. While watching Allegiant, the establishing shot I discussed earlier was not improved by Hammond’s set design. Instead, it made me feel like I was about to watch a low-budget Godzilla movie where they use a doll to stomp across a two-feet-tall model of a city. It immediately put me off from the story. If you’re going to make people buy into your post-apocalyptic world, you need to make everything believable. For production design, this means it needs to look realistic to the world that the story creates. Instead, the city ruins looked methodical. It also didn’t help that the gate scene just prior reminded me of a PowerPoint background. When the gate slowly closes, locking everyone inside the city limits, it looks as if they added the gate in post. There is no sense of depth or dimension in the coloring of the gate, so the gate lies flat on the screen.
As the film progressed, I kept having flashbacks to the ridiculous desert scenes in Starship Troopers and Planet of the Apes. When Tris and her core group stumble around a field of boiling sulfur deposits, it’s obvious that they are on a set. The colors are too vibrant and iridescent, the wide shots show the disproportional relationship of the actors to the landscape as well as, once again, the lack of depth in the shot. Hammond often provides two levels of depth instead of three. For example, in the still below, there are the sand dunes (first level of depth) and the building (second level). Either there should be one more structure far behind the building, or the line of actors running should be closer to the forefront. This would have added a third layer and created a feel of vastness across this wide open plain. Since this is not the case, everything feels a bit fake. The creation of depth and a strong vanishing point and horizon line is the job of both the production designer and the cinematographer. As you can see in the still below, it looks as if the desert just ends right behind the abandoned house. While small details are done well, like the different shaped and size rocks, and the indoor designs are great, the outdoor sets that look fake.
Take a look at Divergent’s Oscar-winning production designer Andy Nicholson’s work. Below is a very simple still meant to showcase the blazing line of fire. You can see that he starts with tall strands of grass in the foreground, then he adds the fire for another layer, and, although the fire is the subject of the shot, much like the building in the still above, he doesn’t neglect to create a third layer with trees behind the fire. These trees aren’t tall enough to make you think they are right behind the fire, because that would actually take away from the depth of the shot, rendering it two-dimensional. Instead, they just peek over the flames, which tells us they are a ways away. With these three layers, it actually feels like we’re looking at a large field, even though there are very views of the field.
The production design in Allegiant is severely lacking in dimension and depth, and the cinematographer did little to cover this up, meaning that many outdoor sets look inauthentic.
- Directing and Writing
It’s easy to point at the director and lay all the blame on them. Especially when you realize that there was a change in director. But to my surprise, that change didn’t happen between the second and third movies, but rather between the first and second. That means that the director of the second and third movies, Robert Schwentke, stumbled a bit towards the end. He was the person with the vision, the guy on set who provided guidance to all other areas of the film. But when the director isn’t strong, you better have a strong director of photography, set designer, and script. The issue here was that great acting was all he had to lean on. Sometime a director can be off his game, but the writing carries the film. It’s not going to be the best film, but it won’t be terrible. Unfortunately, Robert Schwentke had no such luck.
The writing throughout this film was atrocious. There was a moment when a character just stood in front of a sulfur pool and said, “This looks radioactive,” as if he had ever seen such a thing before in his life. It was a blatant on-the-nose moment, especially since there was no movement from him or the camera as he said it. In previous films, this character would show his fear through his actions, like when he switched sides to work with the antagonist in Insurgent. It seems now his fears are just stated.
Each film had a different team of writers, which is risky because is can cause consistency issues, which is exactly what happened.The film demeaned Tris’s character, abandoning many of the qualities the previous films had established for her by having her fall for the antagonists plan. They also made her more lovelorn than in the past. In addition, there were a number of coincidences that made me laugh at how ridiculous they were. I mean, there was a moment when Tris and crew were on top of the wall searching for something to power down the electric fence. Suddenly, they see the giant power source hiding behind a bush just a few yards away. It was so lazy.
So unfortunately for Schwentke, he had few sources to lean on. The writing staff was replaced for each film of the trilogy, meaning that the successes and experience gained working on the previous installments are lost with each new film. Still, at the end of the day, there are very few differences between the crew for Allegiance and the crew for Insurgent, which leads me to believe that he just couldn’t get the crew on the same page. I’m sure he didn’t have much say on the writing or budget, but he did have say on every other element, and therefore I think the overall issues with this film came down to his inability to bring the crew together this time around. Even the strength of the cast was not enough.
It’s hard to fault any single department for the film’s difficulties, because this was a team effort. Cinematography and production made the film visually unappealing and the writing was poor. This is especially disappointing for a film like Allegiant, where the bar was set high by the previous films. The viewers had already built a connection with these characters and this storyline through both the previous films and the books. So seeing a film that deteriorated this connection was like hearing a lesser cover of your favorite song. You’ll engage, but you know the original inside and out and therefore can very easily point out the cover’s flaws. If Schwentke got everyone on the same page and really built a community around the creation of this film, it may have been better. Not great, but better. Instead, the collaboration felt very limited and each piece, from cinematography to writing, felt ameatur in a way that the previous films didn’t.